Sometimes, apartment living can breed strange bedfellows. Who hasn’t been paired with an oil-and-water roommate? When that happens, the best each side can do is learn to get along. You may even find an unlikely friend in the process.
It’s a fitting analogy for what’s happening between apartment operators and the online apartment review sites where residents post their unabashed opinions about multifamily communities. Once reviled as industry pariahs where haters could unfairly bash a community with negative rants, online review sites have quickly become the go-to source for prospects looking for the right place to live. That’s why apartment operators, some willingly and some less so, have started to embrace them.
“We’ve been very skeptical of apartment review sites,” says Jesse Holland, president of Albany, N.Y.–based third-party fee manager Sunrise Management and Consulting, which runs approximately 2,000 units in the area. “That said, we are looking at them. We want to know what’s being said and who’s saying it.”
Holland’s got good reason for keeping an eye on those pages. Prospects now overwhelmingly turn to review sites such as Move.com, ApartmentReviews.net, ApartmentRatings.com, and Yelp when making a decision about where to rent, according to Houston-based J Turner Research’s Trends in Resident Technology and Communications Preferences 2012 report. More than 74 percent of respondents said they used review sites, and that those review sites had a significant impact on their decision to rent at a particular community.
Writing on the Wall
ApartmentRatings.com was used by residents more than any other in J Turner’s research, but the site has often been viewed by apartment pros as a clearinghouse for unchecked resident rants.
“A lot of times, we find most of the people who post to those sites are the ones who have an ax to grind,” Holland says. “Often, one disgruntled person posts several times.”
But frequently, some good can come from renters’ comments. “A lot of apartment companies believe these platforms are only for dissatisfied renters who are merely looking to vent their anger and frustration,” says Stephanie Haefner, vice president of interactive marketing at Philadelphia-based Madison Apartment Group, which owns 19,000 units. “We’re not one of them. We view the feedback on social media and ratings sites as a vehicle for engaging with our residents.”
That said, engaging with residents through online review sites can be tricky, and keeping an eye on who’s saying what about you and your communities takes time. But Haefner says committing to do both is key to remaining relevant in your prospect’s search.
Madison recently instituted what it calls its Rate, Review, and Recommend program, where it actively encourages residents to post their opinions on Facebook, Yelp, ApartmentRatings.com, and Foursquare, while distributing traditional resident satisfaction surveys at key service dates, such as when a resident moves in and when a work order is completed. It plans to integrate the results of those weekly surveys, performed by Lutherville, Md.–based SatisFacts, onto its ApartmentRatings.com pages.
At Farmington Hills, Mich.–based Village Green Apartments, which operates 40,000 units nationally, more is also better when it comes to online reviews. “We routinely remind residents and prospects to leave reviews,” comments Jim Elliott, assistant vice president of communications at the firm. “The more reviews residents leave, the more positive reviews we get.”
Operators say that to use online reviews to your advantage, you’ve got to take the time to look at what residents are saying, put the effort in to respond to each comment, and claim your properties’ pages on Yelp, ApartmentRatings.com, Google Places, and the like.
Each company contacted for this article said it designates a senior employee to monitor what’s being said on review sites, and most take advantage of automated notification apps, such as Google Alerts. Others are considering customized reputation management software. Many leverage ApartmentRatings.com’s Manager Center, which sends an alert when a review comes in and lets operators reply as the property’s bona fide manager.
“It’s essential to consistently monitor and respond to reviews—both positive and negative,” says Alexis Vance, national marketing director at Phoenix-based Alliance Residential Co., which operates 50,000 units in 15 states. Always having the right reply, however, can be tricky, especially when a post is negative or untrue. “We respond to those concerns publicly by immediately posting a response,” says Elliott. “If we know who the person is, we may also contact them directly.”
Vance also likes to take such conversations offline. “The negative ones should get a request to discuss the matter directly, over the phone,” she says.
However you respond to negative reviews, though, pros caution that you should never get in a back-and-forth argument with a resident online. Yelp and ApartmentRatings.com also have options for community managers to dispute unwarranted posts, though getting comments removed is challenging.
“Even when you flag a review, we find it’s rare that a review site takes action, because it’s so hard to determine who’s telling the truth,” says T.J. Rubin, founder of Chicago-based Fulton Grace Realty, a third-party manager and brokerage firm. “The best course of action is to try to contact the negative reviewer directly.”
Give credit to your prospects and residents, too: If someone posts something that’s markedly more negative than your other reviews, they’ll likely see through it. “Today’s renters are Internet-savvy,” says Haefner.
For Sunrise’s Holland, it’s about making sure there are enough positive reviews to balance out any haters who may point their ire at you. “If the overall comments are generally fair and honest, people will give the one-off situation less credibility,” Holland says.